The Environmental Protection Agency is reviewing part of a controversial rule that sets the first federal standards to reduce toxic air pollution from power plants.
The rule, issued in December, is aimed at curbing mercury and other toxic pollutants from coal- and oil-fired power plants. The Obama administration calls the rule a sensible step to reduce pollution, but Republicans have denounced it as a part of a "war on coal." The rule could force hundreds of the nation's oldest and dirtiest power plants to clean up or shut down.
The review, announced Friday, focuses on an aspect of the rule that applies to future power plants. The technical review is intended to clarify how the new standards would apply to five plants proposed in Texas, Georgia, Kansas and Utah.
EPA officials called the review a routine step that will have no impact on standards already set for existing power plants. Those rules will protect millions of families from air pollution, the agency said.
The review was prompted by criticism from power plant operators who said the rule as drafted was confusing for new plants.
A spokesman for the American Lung Association, which pushed for the power plant rule, called the review "narrowly crafted." While the group is not happy with the change, "it is not a significant deal," said spokesman Paul Billings.
An official for one of the power companies that sought the review said the EPA's decision to reconsider standards for new plants was an acknowledgment by the agency that its standards are unachievable.
Ken Anderson, executive vice president of Colorado-based Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, said the EPA should review the overall rule "and come back with a regulatory standard that has a proper timeframe and is rooted in the realities of science and engineering." Tri-State has proposed a coal-fired power plant in Kansas.
The EPA rule is intended to slash mercury and other toxic emissions from the oldest and most polluting oil- and coal-fired power plants. The EPA has had authority to set such rules since 1990, but did not impose them until late last year, after a court threw out an attempt by the Bush administration to exempt power plants from such controls.
Power plants are the largest remaining source of manmade mercury in the environment. Mercury is a toxic metal that's known to impair brain development in children, including those exposed in the womb.
When fully implemented in 2016, the standards will slash mercury pollution from burning coal by 90 percent, lung-damaging acid gases by 88 percent and soot-producing sulfur dioxide by 41 percent. Environmental groups and public health advocates say the rule will prevent thousands of premature deaths and avoid millions of dollars in health care costs for asthma and other illnesses.
Republicans and some industry groups say the benefits of the regulation do not outweigh rising electricity bills, jobs lost from shuttered power plants and the nearly $10 billion per year cost. They have portrayed the regulation as an effort by the EPA to kill coal, which is responsible for more than 40 percent of U.S. electricity production.
Changing economics, such as low natural gas prices and reduced electricity demand, are major factors in older coal-fired power plants shutting down.
The review of standards for new plants is due to be completed next March.